As the need to combat climate change is becoming increasingly more pressing, mayors all over the world are working to ensure that cities are becoming smarter and more sustainable. But factors such as low oil prices, data management, and the continued sprawl of urban areas can pose a threat to their ambitions.
In the book Faster, Smarter, Greener: The Future of the Car and Urban Mobility, Venkat Sumantran and his co-authors, Charles Fine and David Gonsalvez, introduce the idea of a new urban mobility architecture that is connected, heterogeneous, intelligent, and personalized (CHIP). On October 13, 2017, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) hosted Sumantran, former CEO of Tata Motors, who presented the book’s arguments to an audience of students, faculty and community members. His presentation was followed by a conversation with Ryan Kellogg, a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy.
Sumantran explained that the auto industry’s strategies for the future are based on three pillars: the electrification of the automobile, connecting it and creating autonomous capability, and identifying ways in which the car fits in a shared economy. Unfortunately, a dramatic transformation of the urban landscape is missing.
“It is estimated that the fatalities of air pollution, traffic fatalities and injuries, and productivity loss in congestion adds up to somewhere between 6 to 10 percent of GDP,” said Sumantran. “In an era where we’re excited about 2 percent GDP growth per annum, we are sacrificing 6 to 10 percent of GDP as economic friction coming out of the mobility architecture that we have.”
Today’s cities are bigger sources of economic power, and are thus becoming more vocal in how they want to transform the way they live. But customer attitudes need to change too.
Most of today’s urban population no longer feels the need to own a car. In fact, when faced with the choice of owning a smart phone or a car, studies have shown that most would choose the phone. However, the portion that does drive often does so individually. For example, in Boston, where Sumantran is living, 40 percent of the city’s traffic during rush hour is taken up by vehicles with a single rider. Sumantran argued that factors such as these contribute to the need for a CHIP mobility architecture in the world’s urban spaces. One possible solution to this is a ride-share project called the Chariot van. Unlike the Uber or Lyft taxi, it carries 15 passengers, saving both space and time in congested cities.
“Mobility thus far in my view has been rather unimaginatively defined,” said Sumantran. He predicts more creativity in the years to come, and calls on the combination of reimagining physical assets and business solutions in order to create heterogeneity. The CHIP mobility architecture becomes crucial to this reimagining. It is adaptable, democratic and equitable, and green and sustainable. “It will hopefully lead to a mobility that is faster, smarter and greener.”
In his discussion with Kellogg, the two touched upon issues such as political support and consensus regarding fees like the congestion charge that New York failed to implement, and mobility data. Should the data be public, or should it remain private for the competitive advantage? Should governments work with companies like Uber and Lyft, and ensure that the people who build the roads are connected to those who operate the public transit systems?
Lastly, Kellogg asked what kind of research universities such as UChicago need to be conducting in order to positively shape the future. Sumantran argued that in order to gain acceptance by governments and societies, researchers need to figure out the fair and full price of the model that customers will have to pay. We will never get it right the first time, but there needs to be visibility that the urban mobility architecture is being steered toward the common good. “We have to be flexible and ready for changes,” he concluded.